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The Importance of Language

“Language is one of the main instruments for transmitting culture from one generation to another and for communicating meaning and making sense of collective experience.” (Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples)

Indeed, the “heart” of any culture is in its language. By expressing our thoughts and beliefs, language is critical to our cultural identity. “If you lose the language the Creator gave you, you won’t be able to speak from your heart to him.” pg 55, Towards a New Beginning Task Force on Aboriginal Languages and Cultures. July 28, 2005. Department of Canadian Heritage, Aboriginal Language Directorate.

Mi’kmaw Language-An Oral Tradition

Before European contact 500 years ago,  Mi’kmaq was primarily an oral (spoken) language passed on from generation to generation through the stories and teachings of family and Elders. Often, storytelling was used to teach children about their natural environment. Mi’kmaw children learned about their culture and history by listening to these legends and stories of mythical characters. The early settlers from Europe wrote down the stories and legends of the Mi’kmaq. One of the famous mythical characters they wrote about was the Mi’kmaw hero “Kluskap,” which is also spelled “Glooscap.” Kluskap had many magical powers, including being able to turn things into stone. As a result, strangely shaped rocks throughout the Maritimes are said to have been put there by Kluskap.

First Nations history and language is also evident in Mi’kmaw place names in Nova Scotia. Here are some examples:

  • “Tatamagouche” translates to “Blocked across the entrance with sand”
  • ”Musquodoboit” means “Rolling out in foam”

It is through many of these Mi’kmaw place names and translations that historians can fi gure out where Mi’kmaq lived and how they traveled.

The Written Word

Before European contact, the Mi’kmaq wrote in hieroglyphs (symbols) which were scratched into tree bark or animal hides. Fortunately some of these writings have been preserved as petroglyphs (carvings in stone). In Nova Scotia, petroglyphs found at Kejimkujik National Park and Bedford Barrens tell the story of Mi’kmaw life.

The Mi’kmaq also used a special belt known as a wampum belt to record history. A member of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council called a “pu’tus” was responsible for the wampum belt. Meetings of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council were “recorded” and read back by the pu’tus, who organized shells and beads on the belt as a way of recording information. At each meeting the Pu’tus would re-tell the history of his people and add more shells and beads to the wampum belt. In this way, the wampum belts tell the history of the Mi’kmaw people. Over the years many Nova Scotians have tried to track the history of the Mi’kmaw language. Silas Terius Rand (1810-1889), a farmer’s son from Canning, Nova Scotia, is one such person. He dedicated his life to the study of the Mi’kmaw language. Rand could speak and write a dozen languages including Latin, Greek and Hebrew, but it was the Mi’kmaw language that intrigued him the most. When Rand lived in Hantsport from 1853 to 1889, he compiled a 40,000-word Mi’kmaw dictionary, translated the Bible, and wrote of the rich mythological lore of the Mi’kmaq.

Documenting (tracking) a language is no easy task. The English alphabet has five vowels and 21 consonants. Combinations of these letters are used to make all sounds in the English language. The Mi’kmaw language uses fewer letters than English, but has one additional character, the schwa “i”. Letters at the start or end of a word can tell its number (singular or plural), its tense, or its formality. Mi’kmaq is an efficient language, meaning much can be said with relatively few words. In the early 1970s linguists Bernie Francis, a Mi’kmaw linguist, and Doug Smith identified a Mi’kmaw alphabet. It is made up of eleven consonants (p,t,k,q,j,s,l,m,n,w,and y) and six vowels (a,e,i,o,u, and a schwa denoted by a barred “i”) These are the only letters required to speak and write the Mi’kmaw language. In 1976 Francis and Smith researched and developed a new orthography to distinguish Mi’kmaq from other languages. Completed in 1980, and now known as the Smith-Francis orthography, it has been accepted as the offi cial written language of the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia. In 2002, the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs, the Province of Nova Scotia and the Government of Canada formally recognized the Smith-Francis orthography as the written form for all documents written in the Mi’kmaw language.

The Decline of theMi’kmaw Language

Today, English is the main language spoken by First Nations people in Nova Scotia. English is used throughout all media, publications, modern film and music. However, English is not the only reason for the decline of the Mi’kmaw language. Other significant events have also played a part in the decline. When the early settlers came to Nova Scotia in the late 1500s, they brought their own language, school system and religion. English quickly became the main language in Nova Scotia. Mi’kmaw families encouraged their children to learn English as it was seen as the way to an education and better life. Unfortunately, this too contributed to the decline of the Mi’kmaw language.

Mi’kmaw language suffered a severe blow during the residential school era—a time when Native students were forced to speak English at school. Children who spoke their own language were punished. In Nova Scotia, more than 1000 Mi’kmaw children attended the Shubenacadie Residential School between 1930 and 1967. These students were separated from their families, their traditional ways and their language. By the time they graduated from the Shubenacadie Residential School, very few students still spoke Mi’kmaq. Sadly, this meant that the generations who came after them did not have any knowledge of the Mi’kmaw language.

Mi’kmaw Language Today

In recent years there have been many efforts to revive the Mi’kmaw language. The Government of Canada and other organizations, including the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, agree that language is an important part of cultural identity. In Nova Scotia, many initiatives are in place to encourage Mi’kmaw youth to learn their language. These initiatives include:

  • Reserve schools in Eskasoni, Membertou, Wagmatcook, Pictou Landing, and We’koqma’q work to ensure students are immersed in Mi’kmaw language and culture.
  • Some public schools and universities are now offering Mi’kmaw language courses.
  • Mi’kmaw language courses and materials are available via (through) the Internet.
  • Mi’kmaw resource materials are being created to assist those interested in the language.
  • Community daycares and preschools teach Mi’kmaw language to First Nations children.
  • Several First Nations communities are using Mi’kmaw signage.
  • Some communities are using Mi’kmaw street names and re-naming their communities using Mi’kmaw words. For example:
    “Afton” is now “Paq’tnkek”
    “Whycocomagh” is now “We’koqma’q”
    “Chapel Island” is now “Potlotek”
  • Modern Mi’kmaw music is becoming popular in the communities.
  • Mi’kmaq/Nova Scotia/Canada agreements are now translated into Mi’kmaq.

Communications/Mi’kmaw Media

Mi’kmaq are also using the media to share their stories, news, culture and language. For example, the Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Nations News, launched in November 1990, provides a valuable communications link among Atlantic First Nations. This monthly newspaper provides newsworthy information and human-interest articles specific to First Nations in the Atlantic region. Through this newspaper, First Nations can share their opinions and ideas. Another example of Mi’kmaw media is Golivision, a cable station that reaches all households in Eskasoni. This TV station has been used for numerous cultural initiatives within the community of Eskasoni. It also broadcasts in the Mi’kmaw language.

Nationally, APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network) has given First Nations a way to share their opinions and perspectives across Canada. “Micmac, Mi’kmaq, Mi’kmaw” The word Mi’kmaq, (ending with a “Q”) is a noun that means “the people.” According to research done by Bernie Francis and Virick C. Francis, the word Mi’kmaq is the regular form of the possessive (showing ownership) nouns nikmaq, kikmaq, and wikma—which mean “my people,” “your people” and “his/her people.” The word Micmac is a mispronunciation of the word Mi’kmaw.

Mi’kmaq is the plural form of the singular word Mi’kmaw. Because it is plural, the word Mi’kmaq always refers to more than one Mi’kmaw person or to the entire Nation. Examples:

  • The Mi’kmaq have a rich history and culture.
  • A Mi’kmaw came to see me.

In addition to being a singular noun, the word Mi’kmaw can also be used as an adjective. Examples:

  • A Mi’kmaw person
  • The Mi’kmaw Nation
  • Mi’kmaw stories often feature Kluskap
  • A Mi’kmaw Elder came to see me.